Hiking Footwear is what you put on when the pavement ends and your outdoor adventure begins. It’s the interface between your body and the trail, so it’s important to make the right decisions about footwear before you purchase. Stubbed toes, sore feet or a blister can ruin an outdoor experience faster than nearly anything else. As footwear becomes more advanced and options proliferate, finding the right shoes may be confusing.
The following topics will help you determine the best hiking footwear for your next walk in the woods.
Categories of Hiking Footwear: Hiking Footwear has evolved into a variety of categories each specialized for different trail activities. Many categories of hiking footwear are good for more than one activity, depending on your specific needs. For example, a Trail Runner could be used for Trail Running, Day Hiking, and Ultralight Backpacking – depending on terrain, ankle strength, and pack weight.
|Name||Description||What it’s good for||Who should buy it|
|Approach Shoes||A light, low-top shoe with a grippy sole||Rock climbers walking off-trail to a route or boulder||Climbers. Day-hikers.|
|Trail Runners||A built-up running shoe with an aggressive tread.||Trail Running, Day-Hiking, Ultralight Backpacking||Trail Runners, Day Hikers, Ultralight Backpackers|
|Trail Shoes||A heavier, stiffer, low-top hiking shoe.||Day-Hiking, Ultralight Backpacking, Backpacking||Day-Hikers, Ultralight Backpackers, Backpackers|
|Hiking Boots – Mid Height||Slightly heavier, more supportive footwear that extends halfway up the ankle||Day Hiking, Backpacking||Day-Hikers, Backpackers|
|Hiking Boots – Full Height||Heavy boots that come all the way up the ankle and offer optimal support.||Day Hiking, Backpacking, Light Mountaineering||Day hikers with bum ankles, Backpackers, some Mountaineers|
|Minimal/ Barefoot-Style Shoes||Minimal shoes that offer unique fit, comfort, and possibly health benefits.||Day Hiking, Trail Running, Ultralight Backpacking||Barefoot Enthusiasts, Day Hikers, Ultralight Backpackers|
|Mountaineering Boots||Big, rigid, heavy, warm boots that accommodate crampons||Mountaineering||Mountaineers|
Ankle Height: Hiking footwear features different levels of ankle support for different needs and activities. Generally speaking, heavier pack weights, more difficult terrain, and weaker ankles suggest more ankle support.
- No Ankle: Approach Shoes, Trail Runners and Trail Shoes have almost no ankle support. They provide little protection for potential ankle sprains and strains. They’re good for individuals with strong ankles, loads under 30 lbs, and gentle to moderate terrain.
- Mid-height: Mid-Ankle hiking boots often feature ankle support that covers most of the talocrural joint (the big joint that pokes out of your ankle). They provide moderate protection against ankle sprains and strains and are a good choice for people with weaker ankles, loads under 50 lbs, who are exploring moderate or challenging terrain.
- Full Ankle: Full-Ankle hiking boots and mountaineering boots feature a tall, stiff sleeve that fully supports the entire ankle, extending well above the talocrural joint (the big joint that pokes out of your ankle). They provide maximum protection against ankle strains and sprains. They are a good choice for people with strong or weak ankles, loads up to and exceeding 1/3 body weight, who are exploring challenging or extreme terrain in bad weather.
Vegan Friendly: A significant percentage of hiking footwear is manufactured with leather, fibers or glue derived from animal sources. Unless specifically labeled “Vegan Friendly,” assume your footwear has some animal-derived components. Vegan footwear is becoming increasingly common, though.
Components: Hiking Footwear is composed of several basic components. By understanding the different options available for each component, you can select the best variety of hiking shoe for your outdoor activity.
- Outsole: The outer sole of the shoe is the part that makes contact with the trail. Most people refer to this as the “sole.” Generally speaking, shoes with deeper fissures between the raised points of the sole (aggressive tread) are better suited for achieving traction on loose, wet, variable trail surfaces like the steep muddy trails of the Pacific Northwest. Shoes with shallower fissures between the raised points of the sole (a less aggressive tread) are better for achieving traction on slick, contiguous rock surfaces, like the slickrock trails of the Inter-Mountain West.
◦ Special Sole Features: Besides different treads available, Outsoles can be equipped with a variety of special features that make them uniquely suited for different activities. Some of the most common features are:
▪ Crampon Compatibility: Some full-ankle hiking boots and most mountaineering boots feature raised lips on the front and rear of the outsole to assist in affixing a crampon to the footwear to navigate steep, icy terrain.
▪ Rock plate: Some hiking shoes feature a strong, rigid plastic plate in the middle of the sole to protect the tender arch of the foot from sharp, pointed rocks. This feature is most common on trail runners with thin midsoles.
▪ Different Sole Compounds: Many companies offer different sole compounds and configurations. The oldest and best known is Vibram, but companies like Five Ten are giving Vibram a run for their money with competitive soles of their own. Some soles are designed specifically to grip well in the water, and some are designed to be “non-marking,” to protect floors and boat decks from unsightly black carbon stains.
- Shank: The shank is a rigid piece of plastic or metal that stiffens the outsole of the shoe. A few different varieties of shanks are common in hiking footwear:
▪ Full vs. 3/4 shank – Heavier, more supportive footwear typically includes a rigid shank that runs the entire length of the shoe. You can tell if a shoe has a full shank because it’s impossible to bend it in half. Heavy-duty backpackers, winter backpackers and mountaineers typically use full-length shanks to reduce fatigue and enable them kick steps into snow slopes and to use ice-grabbing spikes called “crampons.” Most hikers and backpackers prefer the lighter and more flexible footwear with a 3/4 length shank, or no shank at all.
▪ Plastic vs. metal shank – Most shanks in modern hiking footwear are plastic. Some heavy mountaineering boots use a metal shank for extra strength and durability, but this is not a common feature in lighter hiking shoes.
▪ No shank – Most barefoot/minimal and train runners have no shank at all. Shoes without shanks are lighter and more flexible (you can tell because they bend in half easily), but offer less support and less protection from sharp rocks.
- Midsole: The midsole forms the barrier between the outsole and the liner/footbed and cushions your feet from the impacts of the trail and the sharp surfaces of pointy rocks and debris. There are a few common materials used in midsole design, each with slightly different properties. The two most common are:
◦ Polyurethane (PU) Foam: The denser and more durable of the two, PU foam provides slightly less initial cushioning, but lasts longer.
◦ Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) Foam: EVA is slightly less dense than PU and doesn’t last quite as long, but it provides slightly greater initial cushioning.
- Welt: This is the technique used to bond the outsole to the other components of the shoe.
- Not resolable: Most modern hiking footwear has an internal “Goodyear” style welt. This welt is strong, water resistant, light and inexpensive. The only disadvantage is that when the sole wears out, the entire shoe must be discarded.
- Resolable: Some heavy hiking boots feature an external “Norwegian” style welt. You’ll know it if you can see clearly that the outsole of the boot is stitched on. Most shoes with this style welt can be resoled, which means that when the sole wears out, you can have it removed and replaced by a professional cobbler.
- Upper: The footwear’s upper is the top portion of the shoe that you can see. It encases your foot and ankle, and provides support and protection for your outdoor adventures.
◦ Fabric Uppers: Shoes made from synthetic fabrics – including rugged Cordura fibers – are strong, dry quickly, and are generally lighter and more flexible than those with any other type of upper construction.
◦ Mesh uppers: Some fabric uppers are made of a loosely woven mesh material. These uppers offer superior breathability for hot climates and individuals who have extra sweaty feet.
◦ Leather Uppers: Leather uppers are strong, durable and long-lasting. They tend to be heavier, more expensive and less breathable than fabric uppers, though they often provide more support.
◦ Plastic Uppers: Full mountaineering boots often feature a rigid, plastic upper to protect from intense cold and ice.
◦ Insulated Uppers: hiking footwear designed for cold weather use is often equipped with synthetic insulating fills like PrimaLoft or 3M Thinsulate. These keep feet toasty on winter hikes, but are too warm and heavy for summer use.
- Liner: The liner of your hiking footwear plays a crucial role: It wicks away the large quantity of moisture your feet naturally produce. If this moisture isn’t rapidly removed, it can cause blisters, odor, and fungal infections. No one wants swampy feet!
◦ Specialized Liner Materials: Coolmax and other special fabrics offer enhanced wicking for folks with super-sweaty feet, or hikers who expect to travel in hot, humid climates.
- Footbed: The footbed is sometimes called the insole. Most hiking footwear, with the exception of minimal and barefoot-style shoes, includes a removable insole. A removable insole is useful because most shoes dry more rapidly with the insole out. Hikers with especially sweaty feet, or those who travel in damp environments, may need to remove and replace insoles often to reduce odor.
◦ After-market Insoles: A variety of after-market insoles are available to provide more cushioning, to customize the fit of a shoes and correct anatomical problems. Consider an after-market insole to achieve a slightly snugger fit if your shoes are less than a size too big, or on the advice of a physician.
- Closures: Even the age-old ritual of tying your shoes has advanced! Some closure methods are better for different users and for different activities. There is no one “best” closure – only the ones that’s best for you.
◦ Velcro: For hikers with arthritis, mobility issues, or for budding young hikers who haven’t learned to tie shoes yet Velcro offers a huge degree of independence. Velcro closures aren’t the most secure, so they are an uncommon choice for hikers of average mobility.
◦ Zip: Zip closures are also well-suited for hikers with mobility issues, and are sometimes found on winter hiking boots.
◦ Pull on: Pull on closures offer the greatest degree of convenience, and the lowest possible weight, but the least customizable fit. They are often found on water shoes, or barefoot-style minimal footwear.
◦ Lace: Lace closures are the oldest form of footwear closure. With endless possibilities for skipping eyelets and different lacing styles, laces are the most versatile closure available. They are not the lightest, and anyone who has suffered a broken lace or an untied shoe can tell you that they are prone to failure!
◦ Continuous loop systems: These closures are made from a continuous loop of material threaded through the eyelets, with an adjustable mechanism at the top of the shoe to tighten or loosen the loop. Boa technology is one example of this type of closure. These closures provide a secure, customizable and consistent fit.
Waterproof or Not? Waterproof boots are outstanding companions on wet, muddy trails, for frequent stream crossings, for heavy dew, and even to keep feet warm in cold weather. However, any waterproofing reduces the breathability of hiking footwear, and slows the rate at which it dries, making it potentially less comfortable in warm climates.
- Waterproof/ Breathable Membranes: GORE-TEX and eVENT membranes incorporated in leather and fabric hiking footwear provide versatile, breathable water protection in a variety of climates. If you’ve got a waterproof/ breathable membrane in your footwear, you should remember to clean them regularly to maintain the breathability of the membrane, and be careful to ensure any boot treatment you use is compatible with the membrane.
- Waterproofings For Leather: Though shoes with leather uppers can include waterproof/breathable membranes, coated leather is extremely water-resistant by itself. Some hikers even feel that coated leathers are more breathable than waterproof/breathable membranes. However, waterproof coatings on leather boots must be reapplied frequently and require regular cleaning and maintenance in order to remain effective.
- Not Waterproof: Shoes without any waterproofing let water in easily, but they also let it out easily. They dry more rapidly than most waterproof shoes, so, paradoxically, can keep your feet drier in very wet climates.
Average Weight: The average weight of your chosen hiking footwear is one of the most important factors to consider, since the weight of your footwear has a huge effect on your overall enjoyment of your time outside. Every pound you place on your feet is roughly equivalent to placing 5 pounds in your pack. The cumulative effect of lifting extra weight on your feet adds up to hundreds of pounds over the course of your hike, so carefully balance the features you want in your footwear with their average weight.